(Photo courtesy of Lexington Herald-Leader)
When breaking in a new quarterback, a team needs to have receivers that the new quarterback can trust to catch the balls that he is throwing them. The good news for the University of Kentucky is that there is a plethora of good receivers coming back in 2018. This will provide stability, along with the very solid running game, to the UK offense and help settle any nerves that UK fans, as well as coaches, might have about the passing game. The return of one starter from 2017, as well as the return of an injured former starter at wide receiver will give the young crop of freshman receivers some stability and leadership. At tight end, there is a returning starter and an experienced backup, along with two stud recruits. This will provide a great base for improvement in the passing game for 2018.
At the outside wide receiver position, Dorian Baker (6-3, 211) will be returning from an ankle injury that caused him to miss the entire 2017 season. Baker was a standout in 2015, with 608 yards and 3 touchdowns, but struggled in 2016. He only caught 14 passes for 208 yards and 2 touchdowns, which are great single game numbers, but poor numbers for an entire season. Bakers biggest catch came in the last regular season game against Louisville, on a 35 yard touchdown pass from Stephen Johnson. Baker will look to get back to 2015 form, where he was a dominant force on the outside. Baker will likely be backed up by a true freshman in Marvin Alexander (6-3, 180). Alexander is a tall, talented receiver from a great high school program at Chaminade-Madonna in Hollywood, Florida. Alexander possesses the speed (4.5 40 yard dash) to beat many cornerbacks, as well as the height to go over them. Another option to back up Baker is Bryce Oliver (6-3, 205). Oliver is a big receiver, who is a great possession type receiver, with great hands and good speed.
(Photo courtesy of Marvin Alexander’s Twitter)
The inside receiver position is one that has been manned the last four seasons by one of the best wide receivers in Kentucky football history, Garrett “Juice” Johnson. Johnson’s numbers are impressive: 155 catches (5th all time), 2089 yards (4th all time), and 11 touchdowns. Replacing this production will be tough, but the primary candidate is one that possesses an electricity that has not been seen at Kentucky in quite a while. Lynn Bowden (6-1, 190) is an electric, dynamic playmaker who showed flashes of brilliance in his freshman season. Bowden is shifty, fast and makes defenders look silly, at times. His biggest hindrance last season was his late arrival to campus. It took him a while to learn the playbook, but he made an instant impact on special teams. A full offseason and more reps in the offense will make Bowden a dangerous weapon in the Wildcat offense next season. Behind Bowden, Josh Ali (6-0, 180) will bring experience to the position, having played in nine games as a freshman, catching 3 passes for 25 yards. Ali also played at Chaminade-Madonna, which produces very talented college recruits. In fact, three of UK’s receivers (Ali, Alexander and Akeem Hayes) are from Chaminade-Madonna.
(Photo courtesy of Bryan Woolston/Louisville Courier-Journal)
The other outside wide receiver has a returning starter in Tavin Richardson (6-3, 214). Richardson played in 12 games last season, catching 27 passes for 371 yards and 1 touchdown. Richardson is a big, strong receiver who can make the tough catch in traffic, go over his defender with his height and outrun his defender once the catch is made (4.5 40 yard dash). Behind Richardson Isaiah Epps (6-2, 190) made an appearance in six games last season, with 4 catches for 55 yards. Epps is another big, strong receiver who can make catches in traffic. His route running is very good and he appears to have the ability to “take the top off” of the offense. A video on Twitter showed Epps catching a beautiful ball from Terry Wilson:
Another option behind Epps will be incoming freshman Allen Dailey (6-3, 200), who just finished his high school career with a class 6A state championship in Alabama. Dailey caught 80 passes for 1,441 yards and 23 touchdowns his senior year, setting an Alabama record for touchdowns in a single season. He has big play ability and good speed for his size.
(Photo courtesy of Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Charles Walker was the quintessential slot, or fourth, receiver. He had grit, toughness and great hands. He was unafraid to go across the middle and make the tough catch. Replacing his toughness will be difficult, but it can be done. Clevan Thomas (5-11, 205) is a tough, hard nosed receiver who reminds me of former Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward. Thomas makes tough catches and has great speed in the open field. He only appeared in two games, but his spring game performance shows that he will be a stout receiver in the slot. Behind Thomas, incoming freshman Akeem Hayes (5-10, 175) will provide a speedster (4.4 40 yard dash) at the slot position. Hayes was a key part of Chaminade-Madonna winning the Florida class 3A title this season, catching a 44 yard touchdown at a crucial moment in the title game. Hayes is mentally tough and a competitor, so Thomas will have to work to hold off the freshman.
(Photo courtesy of Clevan Thomas’ Twitter)
Ask most quarterbacks what their “safety valve” is in the passing game and they will almost always tell you: the tight end. The University of Kentucky has one of the best tight ends the program has ever seen, with the exception of possibly Jacob Tamme. C.J. Conrad (6-5, 245) has been a “do-it-all” kind of player for the Wildcats. Conrad serves as the primary pass catching target from the tight end position, in addition to blocking for Benny Snell in the h-back role. Conrad is a big, strong and physical blocker, with soft hands and great ability to run after the catch. Watch this touchdown catch from the EKU game:
Backing up Conrad will be Justin Rigg (6-6, 246), who appeared in 3 games, catching 3 passes for 40 yards. Rigg is also a big, physical tight end, which allows offensive coordinator Eddie Gran to use him as an h-back in the run game, as well as a big target in the passing game. He will provide a quality backup for Conrad, while also being used in two tight end packages, as well. Behind Rigg are two very talented incoming freshman, Keaton Upshaw (6-7, 230) and Brendan Bates (6-5, 230). Upshaw and Bates were both highly rated prep tight ends, with both players choosing Kentucky over several big name D-I schools, such as Louisville, Pittsburgh and Clemson. Both players had great numbers in high school, but Bates may be the more complete tight end. Bates’ coaches have lauded him as a blocker and Bates himself said that he prides himself on his blocking abilities.
(Photo courtesy of UK Athletics (left) and Keaton Upshaw’s Twitter)
The receivers and tight end positions are filled with very talented players. The biggest difference between this group and the early groups of receivers that Mark Stoops’ early teams had is the amount of talented depth at every position. At every position, you have a talented player who could have started at UK five years ago. Now, these players will be fighting for backup positions on the depth chart. Regardless of who wins the position battles, the receiving corps for 2018 will be a fun group t owatch. If I had to pick the depth chart today, it would look like this:
WR: Dorian Baker (6-3, 211); Marvin Alexander (6-3, 180); Bryce Oliver (6-3, 200)
WR: Clevan Thomas (5-11, 205); Akeem Hayes (5-10, 175);
WR: Lynn Bowden (6-1, 190); Josh Ali (6-0, 180);
WR: Tavin Richardson (6-3, 214); Isaiah Epps (6-2, 185); Allen Dailey (6-3, 200)
TE: C.J. Conrad (6-5, 245); Justin Rigg (6-6, 246); Brendan Bates (6-5, 230); Keaton Upshaw (6-7, 230)
This group of pass catchers has the potential to be one of the best groups that Coach Mark Stoops has put on the field. The key will be to develop chemistry with each other and with whoever wins the starting quarterback job. Hopefully, there will be many stellar performances from this group, which will lead UK to more wins and another bowl game!
As always, follow UK Fans All Day on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat for all of your UK Sports news!